Solomon golding: the dancer, the activist, the enigma

April 14, 2018
Producer: A Nasty Boy
Words: Conrad Omodiagbe

In 2013, Solomon Golding made history as the first British-born black dancer to be inducted into the Royal Ballet Company. Fast-forward 5 years later, a big move to the San Francisco Ballet Company and a collaborative short film with his brother Amartey, Golding is still taking risks as a performer and staying true to himself. In an exclusive conversation with A Nasty Boy, the acclaimed performer talks coming out, his love for ballet, race and so much more.

(A Nasty Boy): Stephen Daldry’s 2000 movie “Billy Elliot” about a working-class boy, who defies all odds and joins The Royal Ballet Company has been cited as one of your many inspirations. What was it like growing up and how did the title character influence you?

(Solomon Golding): My upbringing was very cultured in a multifaceted way. On one hand [it was] intentional, my mother and father placed a high-value on the Arts (my father was a reggae/dub musician and my mother had an Art degree) on the other, because I’m working class and was raised in low-income government housing and my neighbors and children I went to school with were from all over the world, so celebrating Diwali, Hanukkah and Ramadan were normal parts of my upbringing and tolerance was a nurtured behaviour at a young age.

Billy Elliot was an interesting film for me as I had not much in common with him other than the fact that we were both working class. I will say that the timing of the film was fateful as I had recently discovered ballet and wasn’t sure how I was going to pursue it. Billy Elliot provided some answers and really put the Royal Ballet on my radar. I was surprisingly practical growing up and very confident as I never saw anything as undoable.

(ANB): From being black in the UK to not being black enough in places like Ghana and Jamaica where you also lived in your formative years, being mixed race comes with certain societal confinements. How did this experience shape you but most importantly how did you manage to maintain a sense of self and identity?

(S.G.): Being mixed is something that has taught me so much about human identity in general. I had lived most of my life in a majority-white country. Being seen as other because of the color of my skin was baffling but not surprising. I was raised knowing on whose back the country, which constantly reminded me that I didn’t belong, was built.

I knew the colonial atrocities and the systemic handicapping of people who looked like me. No one ever saw me as half white in the UK and I dealt with the aggression, fear, and fetishization my skin tone incited. I knew my history, I was descended from African King’s and scholars, philosophers and innovators. I clung to my black identity, defended it from this barrage of mistruths and aggression. I was not prepared to be seen as anything other than black. I wasn’t prepared to be told by my own people that I was kind of… but not really. I felt like I was being left in a no man’s land and the identity that I had fought so hard for had been invalidated.

(ANB): Making history in 2013, as the first Black British-born dancer to become a member of The Royal Ballet Company must have been an intense moment of pride and validation. Did you feel any pressure to “do it for the culture” and prove yourself as deserving of that massive opportunity? If you did, how did you handle it?

(S.G): I was very proud of joining the Royal Ballet. I never set out to make history but I’m glad I did. It was bittersweet. I was disheartened that it was 2013 and that I was the first black British-born dancer to have ever joined the Royal Ballet. The company had employed black dancers before, most notably Carlos Acosta, but to be the first British dancer in a very famous British establishment was slightly awkward. I think it was a sobering wake-up call for those who didn’t feel like they lived or operated in any way that allowed discrimination. I was annoyed but not surprised that the subject of tokenism was sometimes attributed to my achievement. A characteristic of the black experience in Western societies is the awareness that one must be more qualified than one’s white counterparts. I can safely say that my contract was earned through sheer hard work and talent and I was more than qualified to be there.

(ANB): After such a high profile stint in London, it’s safe to assume that a lot was expected from your next move. What motivated the decision to make the move to San Francisco and now that it’s been almost a year, do you feel fully adjusted?

(S.G.): My decision to leave the Royal Ballet was motivated by the desire to find where my place was in the ballet world or if I had a place at all. My natural dancing style has always been more lyrical. I want it to look like I’m flying or swimming or gliding. To look like smoke because that’s how dancing makes me feel.

A weightlessness or manipulation by forces unseen but felt. My natural way of dancing is seen as too feminine or not strong enough especially me as a muscular black male coupled with the hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualization and fetishization of the black male form. Ballet has always been about gender roles. Women being timid damsels in distress and Men being knights in shining armor. Dance is changing, especially with the repertoire companies are now doing which encompasses more neo-classical and contemporary works but I feel that dancers like myself who don’t necessarily fit these stereotypical gender roles but more than qualify to be leading dancers in the arena of ballet are being overlooked because of the short-sightedness of directors incapable of shaking their old-fashioned worldviews.

My decision to move to San Francisco was based on the fact that I wanted to see what America had to offer me. Some of the biggest achievements in black dance and ballet have been made here by Alvin Ailey and Alonzo King to Misty Copeland, among a few others. I have been given a huge amount of opportunities to work with some except world-class class choreographers and am happy to see what this relationship can mutually offer one another.

Golding photographed by Eric Tommasson.
Golding photographed by Eric Tommasson.

(ANB): Coming out is by far one of the scariest things to do, a precarious situation with no safety nets and the ability to alter relationships and lives. Growing up with a Jamaican stepdad and having lived there for a while, you must’ve been aware of its homophobic past and even situations now. So what inspired you to make that Sophie’s Choice to come out and how did it affect the dynamics of the relationship you have with your family?

(S.G.): Coming out wasn’t easy and it wasn’t hard. My upbringing was full of homophobia. It was in the music we listened to and the pop culture. I never felt ostracized though and I have always enjoyed dancehall music. I (maybe naively) never felt like they were talking about me not that it makes it ok. The more I realized that I was gay the more I faced a dichotomy. I had always been proud to be black but the idea that, culturally, homosexuality was so vilified shook me. I began to question my own beliefs and those of the people closest to me. How could you, on one hand, fight the mistreatment of one group of humans and then in the same breath condemn another?

My father died when I was 16 before I came out but my mother told me they had spoken when I was younger and he said he’d love me either way and I truly believe that. Because of my upbringing I was nervous to come out but I’d decided that if they didn’t accept me that I’d go it alone and still be successful and that I’d already been rejected by the two halves of my identity, being too black and then not being black enough, and now facing a possible third, that what’s more rejection on top the rejection I’d already dealt with? It may seem quite frank and matter of fact but that’s how I felt about it. I figured that how indifferent the world was treating me that I would treat it the same way. Retrospectively I think I was protecting myself. My whole family has been hugely supportive of me coming out and we all actively dissect what it means to be all the things we are and aren’t with genuine interest and respect.

(ANB): Was there any instance where you felt like your sexuality played an imperative part in how you were treated growing up or in your ascent to becoming one of the most recognizable dancers?

(S.G.): Growing up gay is one thing but growing up gay and black is something else entirely. There have been four points in my life so far where I have been abandoned by factions of what are supposed to be my communities. First being British but half black in the West. Second being half white in Africa. Third being a gay man within the black community and fourth being black in the mainstream gay community. Going gay clubbing in the first 3 years of me coming out were probably the most depressing years of my life. Here I thought I’d finally found my people. I soon learned that this gay community wasn’t for me. Online I saw no blacks, no fems, no Asians. For a community so oppressed I saw surprising amounts oppression and intolerance. I was hugely annoyed by the fact that black culture was being so appropriated by drag queens and white gay men but there was no effort or desire to accommodate. I have had some beautiful experiences within the gay community but there is a very ugly side that I wasn’t prepared for as a young gay man.

(ANB): “Chainmail” an art film about black masculinity and sexuality was an artistic triumph and collaboration between you and your brother Amartey. With sexuality being a subject matter still being addressed in hushed tones in the black community, how important was this story to you and describe the creative process involved in such a brazen work of art.

(S.G.): The CHAINMAIL project was one of those dissections that I spoke about earlier regarding my family and me coming out. The film explores the ideas of homosexuality and masculinity in regards to the black male from both personal and more general experiences. The importance of the film, for me, tried and start a conversation about why we see black men the way we do and how far they can deviate from those allotted stereotypes if at all. The film dealt with layered contradictions; the fact that, though chainmail is armor designed to protect an individual from violence, it also flows and moves like water. The same contradictions applied to my performance. A young black male in armor surrounded by other black males in armor that starts dancing ballet. The violence and water.

The creative process was a beautiful challenge. I was working all day and then trying to rehearse some movement to use for the piece. I was also made to dance in the 65kg worth of chainmail so it was a challenge to actually the create movement that I’d be actually able to do. The whole process was very cathartic to me. Through imagery and movement, I was able to say more than I could have through words alone, which is the main objective of a dancer and was grateful I got the opportunity. CHAINMAIL was my first proper experience with film and it has ignited a desire to collaborate more with filmmakers to explore movement using film.

(ANB): Outside of your work with your brother, you’ve also been known to express yourself through fashion going as far as interning with Anna Valentine and being in fashion films for Selfridges. Is this a path we’re likely to see you pursue in the long run?

(S.G.): I see fashion as a freer form of self-expression. What I choose to wear is entirely my choice and that choice isn’t governed by any institution or establishment that, I feel, have limited my expression as a dancer. I feel that there is power in how one chooses to dress. It’s also interesting to see how differently I’m treated based of what I’m wearing. Fashion is something I will continue to incorporate into everything I pursue as I feel it has a very valid place in the makeup of my identity.

(ANB): Men taking care of their skin and applying makeup still seems like a foreign concept as a result of years of toxic masculinity being instilled in us. You’ve been spotted with make-up on before, is it something you enjoy doing?

(S.G.): I wouldn’t say I’ve properly explored using make-up. I really appreciate seeing it used as a way of self-expression. I never grew up around make-up. My mother has never worn it so I never had any reference point or opportunity to experiment with it. Wearing make-up is part of my job as a dancer and I enjoy the process of exploring and exaggerating my features.

(ANB): As cathartic as it is, dancing requires an intense level of dedication mentally but also physically. What is your physical routine like?

(S.G.): My physical regime is very demanding. My day starts with an hour and fifteen-minute ballet class and then, depending on the day, have 5 hours of rehearsals and then a show in the evening. I also enjoy going to the gym and working my body in a less balletic way. I see working out as a reset button for my body. Ballet puts the body under immense stress especially if done incorrectly. I find working out allows me to strengthen my body in a more natural way so when I come back to the studio my body is prepared to accommodate the strain. I found an excellent trainer here in San Francisco who is an absolute genius when it comes to training the human body. Lisa Giannone’s clients include Olympic Boxers and Dancers to Victoria Secret models and everyone in between. Her workouts strengthen the base human physical functions which in turn improves each varied clients discipline. The ballet world has been a bit slow to utilize the sports science which other athletic institutions have incorporated into their training. There has been some resistance from the old guard in ballet as they see ballet class as the main staple of a ballet dancer’s well being, however, ballet has changed considerably from the days of Fonteyn, Nureyev, and Balanchine. Technically and aesthetically what is required from dancers today is more extreme than our predecessors. That doesn’t make ballet class expendable or pointless however I do find not taking advantage of all the tools available to me to be counter-productive and nonsensical.

(ANB): Being a black gay man is more or less a crime in several countries, with high levels of violence and prejudice. What does sexual equality and individuality mean to you? And what do you want young black boys to take away from your inspiring story?

(S.G.): I hope we as a society can un-brainwash ourselves from being continually shown that deviation from the norm will be punished unless it is exploitable. Too often I see my culture being raped and repackaged for profit by the same people who police me, and others like me, for how I am perceived and what I create. True originality and individuality can only be born from those who live in the intersection of the Venn Diagram. I hope we can get to a point where true originality and individuality is celebrated and credited to its true authors.

I want young people hearing my story to understand that anything you pursue belongs entirely to you. There is no “right” way of doing anything and that your experience is completely valid. I wished that someone had said that to me when I was younger. I wasted time trying to fit into molds that weren’t made to accommodate my consistency.

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